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They're Betting That Graphics Will Be a Plus for CDs

July 25, 1989|TERRY ATKINSON

Is it a new kind of music video? Or just a new way of reading liner notes?

Actually CD+G, which stands for Compact Disc Plus Graphics, falls somewhere in between. And even the president of Warner New Media, the company behind CD+G and a subsidiary of Warner Communications, is trying not to oversell the innovation.

"It's news," says Stan Cornyn. "Not world-shaking news, maybe. But remember when stereo came along and people learned they could play those new stereo records on their old monophonic machines? They said, 'Well, might as well buy them.'

"That's how it may turn out with CD+G. But it will be another six years or so before most people start making sure that their CDs have graphics."

Cornyn calls CD+G "a sort of upside-down version of what 'Monday Night Football' does." While the ABC announcers give you an audio description of what is going on visually, CD+G provides a visual description of what you're hearing.

Technically, CD+G is a lot cruder than CD-Video. CD-V discs deliver about five minutes of true video, plus 20 minutes or so of purely audio material. CD+G is "video" only in the sense that it is viewed on a television screen; it's made up of a series of computer-generated still images--and the pictures have the slightly jagged-edged look of such images.

"We're just scraping what's leftover of the data on a CD and coming up with something that enhances the listening experience," says Cornyn. "Still, it's pretty nifty."

For anyone who would like to see what's pretty nifty about it, Warner New Media has set up an exhibit at the Music Plus store in Glendale (adjacent to the Glendale Galleria). By sometime this week, there will also be others at various Music Plus, Tower and Wherehouse stores in the area--including the Tower store on the Sunset Strip and the Wherehouse store adjacent to the Beverly Center.

Even though CD+G has been featured on a few CDs for a couple of months, no one will be able to take advantage of that extra data until next week, when the first compact disc player to translate CD+G signals, the JVC XL-G512, is scheduled to go on sale. (If your current CD player has a "digital out" or "subcodes" connector in back--and few do--you may not have to upgrade; JVC may eventually bring out a decoder that can be connected between this and a TV.)

Compact discs with graphics already on sale can be spotted by the big CD+G logo on the packaging. They include CDs by Lou Reed, Talking Heads, Simply Red, Donna Summer, 10,000 Maniacs and Information Society--plus several classical-music discs on the Teldec label. More will follow soon, including, from RCA, the first surround-sound CD, "The RCA Home Video Album," whose graphics will feature "intermission" and "our main feature" scenes for use in home-entertainment centers.

CD+G graphics vary widely from disc to disc, judging by the brief samples shown at the Music Plus store. Sometimes the visuals are playful and colorful (Information Society, Simply Red, Donna Summer). Sometimes they're more somber (a song from Lou Reed's recent "New York" album is accompanied by black-and-white night-life photos).

A song from Talking Heads' "Naked" CD shows another approach. It's geared toward musicians: All the instruments employed in the song are listed on the right; on the left are lyrics and chord changes--which continually change as the song plays.

On many CD+G discs, the lyrics are translated into several languages; you just switch to one of the 15 channels on the JVC player to find French, Japanese, and so on.

The current demos won't feature examples from any classical discs. Warner New Media hopes to set up a similar exhibit specifically for classical music departments sometime in the future. Cornyn says the Teldec CD+G discs give "a real-time music appreciation course," allowing one "to see what the composer was intending to do."

So far, most of the compact discs featuring CD+G are on labels owned by Warner New Media's sibling company, Warner Elektra Atlantic (WEA). Only a few other companies "have their toes in the water," Cornyn says. "Nobody has said, 'You've got our entire fall release'--it's a little early for that yet."

But since the JVC player will probably sell at a "mid-range" level (somewhere between $400 and $500) and CD+G adds nothing to the price of a compact disc for consumers, Cornyn feels that "it comes down to a shrug and a 'Why not?' "

Another CD-enhancement tool may go CD+G one better in September, but only for users of Macintosh computers. That's when the Voyager Co. of Santa Monica will be making CD Companion available.

Developed in association with Robert Winter, a UCLA music professor noted for his informative talks at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and on KUSC-FM, CD Companion will also provide a classical-music appreciation course--but it will do much more as well.

Using Apple Hypercard software, CD Companion will enable the user to control the compact disc in a truly interactive manner. The first release will focus on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

With a click of your Macintosh mouse, you'll be able to opt for a historical journey through'Beethoven's World," or have visual explications of how the composer developed a theme, or make use of several other functions.

"CD Companion enables you to take a piece apart and put it back together again," says Bob Stein of Voyager. Compared to CD Companion, he says, CD+G is "helpful, but not much better than reading subtitles. You can't go back and forth. You can't query it."

Speaking of subtitles, Stein says that a technology similar to that of CD+G and CD Companion will probably give laser-disc player owners the option of switching subtitles and and visual commentary on and off on foreign films and other video discs. How soon? "Maybe in just a year."

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